Feds: Benefits outweigh harm in Black Mesa

By Annie Greenberg
Navajo Times, December 14, 2006

WINDOW ROCK – A draft Environmental Impact Statement put out by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and enforcement recommends that the Black Mesa Mine be reopened and the neighboring Kayenta Mine be expanded.

The justification OSM gives for the environmental harm that would follow – including harm that would follow – including the dislocation of 17 Navajo families – is the boost to both the tribal and overall economy that the mines would provide.

Black Mesa Mine shut down Dec. 31, 2005, when its sole customer, the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin Nev., had to close after failing to comply with clean-up requirements it had agreed to six years earlier.

Power plant operators formally announced in June that compliance would be too expensive, so Mohave would not be reopened.

The Salt River Project, owner of a minority interest in Mohave, has announced that it is interested in reopening the plant and making the needed improvements.

The giant Phoenix utility got together with Peabody Western Coal, Co., operator of the two mines, and Black Mesa Pipeline Inc., to ask federal regulators to resume the process of granting an extended permit to mine coal on Black Mesa.

Scott Harelson, SRP spokesman, stressed the company is pursuing an interest in Mohave only – not the mines. And even that is tentative.

"They’re just plans," he said. "We’re still in the process of trying to form a new ownership group. We really don’t have anything to report."

Harelson added that SRP hopes to have a new ownership group formed by early 2007.

Beth Sutton, Peabody spokeswoman, said the company is exploring different options for potential coal customers.

"We’re exploring discussions with both tribes (Navajo and Hopi) looking at multiple tracks of coal related opportunities," she said.

"On the one hand there is the ongoing discussion with Mohave…at the same time we’re also pursuing other opportunities to use the Black Mesa reserve," she said.

But SRP, along with Peabody and Black Mesa Pipeline Inc., has already petitioned OSM to allow them to reopen and expand the Black Mesa complex, which consists of the two mines.

In addition, they propose to construct a coal-washing facility, increase the amount of coal produced by the mines, build a 108-mile-long pipeline from the Coconino aquifer in Leupp, Ariz., to Black Mesa, and rebuild the 273-mile slurry pipeline that moves coal from Black Mesa to Mohave.

George Hardeen, spokesman for President Joe Shirley Jr., regarded the plans with optimism.

"Peabody’s been a good neighbor to the Navajo Nation through employment and certainly the royalties paid to the Navajo Nation," he said. "We’d like to see that relationship continue if possible."

According to the draft report, the expansion would generate 480 new jobs and royalties of around $37.0 million for the Navajo Nation.

When the mine and power plant shut down last year, it resulted in the loss of around 400 jobs.

But expanding the mine would also require the relocation of 17 Navajo families for at least 20 years, decrease air quality, and endanger already-endangered species of fish in the Little Colorado.

OSM acknowledged it would also cause the depletion and possible contamination of local groundwater levels, among other things.

Environmentalists said it’s not a fair trade-off.

Andy Bessler, Southwest representative for the Sierra Club, said pumping out so much ground water – an estimated minimum 6,000 acre-feet per year – for industrial uses is unconscionable.

That would be a 36 percent increase over the 4,400 acre-feet of water Peabody and the pipeline were authorized to use under the existing permit, he said.

"It would use a lot of water, that’s the problem. In the Southwest it’s a crime,” he said. “The scope of its impact on the users of the C aquifer is tremendous."

In August 2003, while Black Mesa was still in operation, the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution barring Peabody from the Navajo aquifer by the end of 2005. The Hopi Tribal Council passed a similar resolution.

It was the first time any council had asserted its position against industrial pumping. Despite intense pressure from Shirley, the miners’ union, Peabody and the utilities that own Mohave, neither tribal council has changed its position.

The draft EIS assumes that the C aquifer would be used to sustain the Black Mesa complex, an idea that is opposed by Leupp residents and border towns that rely on the aquifer for drinking water. But the draft EIS also leaves open the notion of "some supplemental use of water from the N aquifer."

And should the pipeline from the C aquifer broke down, OSM recommends that the N aquifer once again become the sole water source for the mines, which would remain in operation until 2026.

"We recognize there have been concerns about the continued used of the Navajo aquifer for mining and traditionally have agreed to disagree," Sutton said.

The aquifers provide water to approximately 40,000 Navajos and Hopis in the Black Mesa area.

Public meetings to discuss the draft EIS will be held Jan. 2 in Window Rock from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Navajo Nation Museum; Jan. 3 in Moenkopi, Ariz., from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the community center; Jan. 4 in Kayenta, Ariz., at Monument Valley High School and in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the veterans center; Jan. 9 in Leupp, Ariz., from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the chapter house; Jan. 10 in Winslow, Ariz., from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Winslow High School; Jan. 10 in Laughlin from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Laughlin Town Hall; and Jan. 11 in Flagstaff from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Little America Hotel.

Navajo translators will be provided.

Public comments on the draft EIS are due by Jan. 22, 2007.

OSM said it anticipates that the final EIS would be distributed to the public in July 2007 and decisions on the various components of the Black Mesa Project (by OSM, the tribes, and other federal agencies) would be forthcoming in August 2007.


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html